In Save Yourself, Patrick Cusimano works at Zoney's, a 24-hour convenience store in a small fictional town in Pennsylvania called Ratchetsburg. He finds his candy-striped uniform and the sterile atmosphere of the place stifling, yet work here is one of just a few options for town residents. From what Braffet describes, it seems like Zoney's is the only food store around for miles. Such areas, where access to fresh produce and food is quite limited, are labeled "food deserts."
According to the USDA, an area qualifies as a food desert if it is both a "low-income" community and also a "low-access" community. "Low income" as defined for these purposes by the USDA is a census tract (a statistical segment of a county designated for census purposes) with 20 percent or more of the population living below the poverty line. "Low-access" is defined as 500 people or 33 percent of a census tract's population living more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Food deserts can be in both urban centers as well as rural areas.
Food deserts are a problem because of the local population's over-reliance on convenience stores as the source of their nutrition. Convenience stores are mostly stocked with high-sugar, fatty processed foods (the reasons for this are worth exploring in the wonderful book, Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss) leading to the larger problem of obesity.
In her fight against obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has included food deserts as part of the many challenges the United States must overcome. Large retailers have promised to include more fresh options in the existing stores in food deserts as well as open new stores to aid underserved communities.
Other solutions include turning to urban farming in city centers which are food deserts. The Boston-based City Growers works to convert vacant urban lots into plots for growing food. Boston also boasts an interesting concept called a mobile food pantry that delivers needed supplies to food deserts such as Germantown, a neighborhood about 12 miles south of the city. The food is free and distributed to residents who show up, without verifying need. Programs such as these have been also been implemented in other cities, and might make a dent in the problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can be sustainable solutions to the long-term issue of food deserts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an interactive tool that effectively showcases the widespread prevalence of this problem. The Food Desert Locator helps users find these environments and explains how severe each case is.
Some have argued that the "food desert" rhetoric blames the obesity epidemic squarely on the lack of healthy food options while obesity is actually caused by a number of factors including a sedentary lifestyle.
This article was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the
May 2014 paperback release.
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